Fifteen people lie down in rectangles on my screen. I am telling them to relax their jaws and soften the muscles around their eyes. I am also having a silent, hand gesture-based conversation with a five-year-old girl in one of the rectangles. This morning the girl’s mother sent me an email that read: “I’m going to attempt as much of the class as she will allow me to do – sometimes she is fine with it, and sometimes not.” In the next box, a cat strolls into view and settles down on its owner’s back as they rest in the child’s pose. Elsewhere, a dog is causing chaos at the back of someone’s mat. This is what I’ve learned from teaching Zoom yoga; mostly, small children and pets rule a household.
I’ve observed couples having conversations in class, giving me a delicious feeling of embarrassment and curiosity
I’ve been teaching yoga full-time since 2014. Pre-lockdown, my life as a yoga teacher in London involved cycling around the city before it was light to teach a 7am studio class, then hopping around various cafes or parks (depending on the season) until it was time to visit an office to teach a lunchtime class. I used to go home for an afternoon nap in an empty house, before setting out again on my bike for an after-work class. When the pandemic hit, I, like most self-employed yoga teachers, panicked for a week and then quickly constructed a new working life via Instagram live classes, eventually finding a Zoom rhythm that would pay the rent. Today, I wake up in my attic bedroom, get a cup of tea from downstairs and crawl to the other side of the bedroom, under the sloped ceiling, to teach yoga. Most of the day is spent trying not to get in the way of housemates using their rooms as offices, until it’s time to go back on camera.
In the first lockdown, I found the restlessness in the various screen boxes unsettling; was it a reflection of my inability to keep people engaged? Now it’s clear that it’s a miracle when anyone is able to sign up to a class in the first place, let alone manage a whole hour without disruption. Back in the days of studio classes, someone meandering off their mat or sliding on to their belly for a little scroll on the phone would be enough to ask them nicely to stop, and then, on a second time, nicely to leave. But, as with everything in the past 12 months, the rules no longer apply.
Online yoga has its benefits: I get people from all over the world logging in, not just people in the same postcode. One of my corporate clients has global offices, so I see afternoon light in Swedish living rooms, next to dusk in Singapore apartments.
I teach between 10 and 13 classes a week. There are a couple of students who I have seen more or less every day for six months. Usually we have a few minutes of chat at the start of class, then I move between watching them, as I would observe students in a real-life class, and demonstrating on my mat.
It is both more and less intimate than teaching in real life. Some people have attended regularly and never turned the camera on; they are voices I’ve heard, faces I’ve never seen. Sometimes, I’ll notice halfway through the hour that someone has gone – with no explanation. Maybe their wifi cut out, maybe they were bored, maybe there was a household emergency, maybe a phone call. In a Zoom room, there is so much more space for the rest of our lives to continue.
I’ve observed married couples having conversations in a class, leaving me with a delicious feeling of embarrassment and curiosity. The level of chaos in the background gives me so much information about what people might need from the class. I see loneliness in tidy houses with a single harsh lightbulb, and in the people who arrive at least five minutes early with something to say. There are people who care about the light I see them in, and the ones who clearly don’t care whether the angle is flattering.
People less familiar with Zoom often present me with angles that are so close, I can see the depths of the expression on their face in a way I never would have before. There are people who adjust the camera all the way through to stay in my eyeline. There are people who look at me, and those who keep their eyes closed. I can see it all on one screen; sometimes I have to close my eyes because it’s too much information.
From my mat-side view into homes, I’ve learned that most people have a hook in their house that was intended to hold a single dressing gown, but has since been used for a dressing gown, a selection of dirty towels, a hoodie, three tote bags and a belt. Most people also have just about enough floor space for a yoga mat, but usually slotted between the bed and the wall, or like an island in a circle of sofas. There are people who use the kitchen floor and find a way to lie down comfortably at the end of class next to the crumbs that, on closer inspection, cover much of it.
Despite the clutter, I’ve noticed a collective attempt to make the best of the space. Everyone is inspired by Scandi design. Pot plants, and in some cases potted trees, thrive in the corners of rooms, and large candles stand on bookshelves; there is usually a stack of folded blankets. Books are colour-coordinated on Ikea shelves.
As the months have gone by, and our experience of lockdowns has accumulated, I have noticed subtle changes. We used to turn up in the clothes we’d wear to a real-life class. Nice leggings, occasionally a matching bra top. Hair in ponytails. For a few weeks we wore deodorant! But, as time passed, we evolved. A hybrid outfit has emerged; usually baggy jogging bottoms-cum-trousers, paired with a loose, knitted garment over a well-worn T-shirt. This is true for 80% of the Zoom yoga population. But an elusive 20% remain – we’ll call them the miracles – who wear makeup and probably shave their legs every morning.
For some people, our five minutes of chat before class starts is their only human contact of the day. Sometimes private snippets spill out; I have found myself doing it, too, mentioning my hangover or precarious emotional state. I would never have shared so much in a clean, bright white studio that didn’t belong to me; but from my bedroom floor, I think, well, you’ve come this far: here’s something else that’s real. We lost something, but learned a whole new language in the void. Even in the most restricted days of our lives, we made new space for somewhere else. And isn’t it revealing?